Ancient farming technique re-emerges in Missouri

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MIDDLETOWN – Some farmers in Missouri are beginning to bring back a style of farming first used in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

It is called hydroponics; a farming system that grows produce without soil and it is beginning to re-emerge on farms across the nation.

Dave and Beverly McConnell own Utterback Farms in Middleton, Missouri. The couple recently made the switch to hydroponics after realizing it took less manual labor and was more environmentally friendly.

“We did a lot of research online and got to looking at it. As we’re getting older, all the weeding, watering, hoeing and the gardening work. This just is a lot less labor intensive,” Dave McConnell said.

Hydroponics involves placing plants on long trays, which float on mineral heavy water. The roots suck up the minerals eliminating a need for soil.

“Usually the growth is much quicker than it is out in the dirt. When you’re in the dirt you’ve got the wind, you’ve got the weather, lack of sun, some sun,” Beverly McConnell said.

Despite the heavy reliance on water for the system, it uses less than traditional farming.

“We’ve got like 10 inches of water in each bed, it takes 80-90 percent less water. That’s because when you water out in the dirt, it goes everywhere. This is contained,” Beverly McConnell said.

Utterback Farms was previously an aquaponics system that uses fish to provide the minerals rather than inserting them in the water, but a string of incidents caused that to change.

“We were going to St. Louis for farmers markets. It was the Saturday before Mother’s Day. We all three left, we all three came back. There had been a car accident, took out a transformer, all the oxygen quit and we had dead fish everywhere and it was several hundred dead fish. We were all just sick,” Beverly McConnell said.

So far the pair are happy with the change. They say it is a lot less pressure to maintain.

“With the hydroponic system, yes the plants need dissolved oxygen. But, if they’re without for six or ten hours they’re not going to die. Fish are going to die,” Beverly McConnell said.

For now, the farm grows mostly basil and mint. The McConnell’s say the two plants pair well with the new system and yield significant advantages, like the ability to use the same plants each harvest rather than growing new ones from seeds.

“This system will grow pretty much most anything we want it to do, but what we like about basil is it’s a cut and cut again product where we cut it one week and we can go back in seven to 14 days and cut it again and do another harvest,” Dave McConnell said.

While the couple is the only full time employees at the farm, they are seeing significant yields and are expecting 16 thousand basil plants this year alone.

“We have hit a bit of a niche market on that and we have some very fine customers,” Dave McConnell said.

It is not all easy work, though, the McConnell’s said. Learning an entirely new system can be difficult and the couple has seen a fair number of fellow farmers try and quit.

“When we first started this, we thought it was such a wonderful thing. We were giving classes and we had several people take the class wanting to start their own business. We were helping them all we could, but I don’t think any of them stuck with it,” Beverly McConnell said.

Utterback Farms, however, has stuck with it and is happy with the results. For now the couple mainly ships to St. Louis, Columbia and Jefferson City, but they plan to ship out of state for the first time this year.